A Sketch: Earl Mann (1886 – 1969)

We were leaving the pub when a photo at the door stopped me. Like all the photos decorating The Whittier, it was a historic neighborhood black and white, acquired from the wonderful Colorado Historic Society/Denver Public Library collection. The gentleman in this photo wore a three-piece suit and a humorous, mocking look for the camera. He radiated confidence. This guy was in charge.

Later, I chanced upon one of those neighborhood history booklets, thumbed through it while in line to check out, and found that same photo. Colorado’s second black representative, Earl Mann was elected to five terms in the state legislature, served from 1944 – 1953.

Photo taken in 1942

Photo taken in 1942

Born June 8, 1886 in Iowa, Mann graduated from high school, attended a Chicago technical school for engineering. I imagine he was the only African American in some of those classes. One of the first blacks to be commissioned by the Army in 1917, he served in France in World War I, was chlorine gassed there. In the 30s and 40s, writing for The Colorado Statesman, an African American newspaper, he signed himself “Lieut. Earl W. Mann.” He was justly proud of that officer rank.

On May 17, 1930, his column was about a colored man being lynched in Sherman, Texas. (It was 1930. “Colored” was the polite usage.) He talks about the attempt a few years earlier to enact legislation “making lynching a federal offense… Its passage failed in the Congress.” Incredible, isn’t it?

In the 50s, he and his wife Grace bought a home at 2149 High Street, two blocks on the wrong side of the color line. Twenty or so years earlier, blacks had been strongly discouraged from buying south of 23rd in east Denver. The KKK burned crosses on their lawns if they did. Mann surely knew that history and took satisfaction in living there.

2149 High Street

2149 High Street

In the Blair Caldwell Library’s collection, there’s a photo of him and several white men, all in suits and ties, sitting in his living room, a generous bookshelf filling the wall behind him. I made out two titles, the then popular historical novelist Thomas B. Costain, and a book about Liberia, the U.S. colony created to send freed slaves back to Africa. That brilliant plan didn’t work out. Mann lived in the High Street house until his death in 1969 and Grace remained there until hers, in 1974. They had no children.

On winning a place in the 1940 Republican primary, Lt. Mann wrote: “I feel confident of victory in November if TEN THOUSAND COLORED PEOPLE WILL SUPPORT ONE OF THEIR OWN, WITH THE SAME ENTHUSIASM AS ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WHITES STAND WILLING TO DO.” (His caps. He felt the need to yell at his people.)

I did say Republican primary. In this neighborhood so solidly black and Democratic when I moved here in 1984, it seems odd. But it was so. There’s a photo of him with Mamie Eisenhower and her daughter at a political event in the 50s. When he won a place in that primary, the Statesman hoped he’d be elected, “which will be a signal honor to his race.”

Mann resisted such pigeonholing. Toward the end of his tenure in the legislature, he was charged with “misrepresenting” the Denver Negro community, in the Denver Post, March 9, 1953. He responded swiftly that he’d never claimed to serve only the Negro community, that he was elected to five terms “by overwhelming margins and the people knew I was a Negro. I do not get my support only from Denver Negroes and do not represent only Denver Negroes.” (It was the 50s. “Negro” was the polite usage.)

And the people knew I was a Negro: his mocking tone matches the look that stopped me at the pub. His “So They Say” columns, in the elaborate language of the day, often resist stereotyping and promote education:

“Ignorance is a blight, and those who merely stand upon the sidelines and sigh, making no effort to better conditions of which they complain, are in my judgment, but little better, if any, than those who contribute to moral and spiritual retrogression.” (Colorado Statesman, February 9, 1940)

He deals frankly with race in politics: “I resent just as greatly, hearing one of the Reactionary Republicans say: “You Colored people owe perpetual fidelity to the Party of Lincoln,” as I do hearing the Democrats say: “Our liberal social views preclude any distinction based upon race or color.”

Mann helped defeat the Alien Land Act, 1944, which would have forbidden Japanese from owning land in Colorado. His column on that was called “Taking the Heat,” and mentions the “flames of the KKK wrath” faced by those who opposed the bill. The bill “was merely fascism appearing in a new suit of clothes, without bathing, permitting the noxious body odors to disclose its identity, and its subtle purpose: Japanese and then Negroes and Jews.” (February 19, 1944)

Next time you’re in The Whittier for a burger and brew, pause at the door to salute Earl Mann, one of those who broke trail in Denver so others might more easily follow.

 

Posted in Education, Neighborhood | 1 Comment

Banana Bread & Salad Days

This situation is Kathleen Cain’s fault for being burglarized. She came home to find her front door kicked in. Among belongings impossible to replace, the lousy thieves took a box of checks. If that hadn’t happened, Kathleen would not have gone to the bank to get her account changed. And if she hadn’t gone to the bank, she wouldn’t have started talking to Amanda Duran, the bank employee who helped her. Of course, Kathleen had to mention how the robbers tore open a little treasure chest, hoping for diamonds, only to find her collection of shells and stones

“When they rob a poet, that’s the kind of treasure they’ll find,” Kathleen said.

“My grandfather was the first poet laureate of Colorado,” Amanda offered.

“Lalo Delgado was your grandfather?” Kathleen exclaimed.

Connections were made and a few days later, Amanda found a copy of that infamous Westword cover for the article I wrote and posted it on Facebook. Obviously it’s Kathleen’s fault that I started thinking, “I know I have copies of that somewhere…”

* * *

Several weeks earlier our neighbor Eric popped over with half a loaf of banana bread. “I just made it,” he said, clearly proud of himself.

“Very impressive,” I replied, oven-fresh warmth in my hands.

“Well, it wasn’t that hard. I used a mix,” he admitted.

Nonetheless it was endearing. So a week or two later when I happened to make a banana cake with nuts and chocolate icing from scratch, I took a slice over as a thank you.

Disclaimer: I should say now that Eric’s partner Jenn is not guilty in any of the ensuing proceedings.

“He won’t take that lying down,” Phil said sagely.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

* * *

I ransacked the basement fruitlessly, next tried boxes stored on a top closet shelf. A ladder is required. I do not have time for this. I’m supposed to be grading student stories and translating a biography. Instead, I’m wiping off grimy box lids. Two dust-induced sneeze attacks later, at the bottom of a box, I find my yellowed copy of the Westword cover of April 22, 1982. It has word balloons scrawled in ink all over it.

* * *

I found out what Phil was talking about. Last week, Eric appeared at the door with another tinfoil package. He was wearing gloves, one of which he threw down on my doorstep. “Oh, right,” he said, “nuts and chocolate and everything. Take this.” Apparently Phil understands men better than I do. I baked something and so why not return the favor, right? I guess men don’t really think like that. I mean, he threw down his glove right there in my doorway. And his new banana bread had blueberries in it.

* * *

Ray Gonzalez grabbed my Westword a few days after it came out and wrote word balloons for everyone. His own says, “What am I doing with these lesser talents?” (Sorry, Ray: you had to know this would come back to haunt you eventually.) Kathleen’s says, “You gotta be kidding!” Mine says, “I hope they still speak to me after this.” In fact, as Ray knew, some poets who were not in the photo or article did stop speaking to me after that. What the hell, I say now: that article was a collection of amusing anecdotes and there were some poets about whom I had no amusing anecdotes. Young and naive, I was disillusioned. I’d thought poets were more high-minded than the average human. I like Lalo Delgado’s balloon best: for him Ray wrote, “What a bunch of silly gringos!”

* * *

“You’re in a bake-off now,” Phil said, rubbing his hands together, after Eric retrieved his glove and left. “So here’s my idea for the next banana bread…”

See, I just love the way Phil has great ideas for things I should do. I also just love the way men turn everything into a competition. Blueberries in banana bread, though: that’s just wrong.

Two of those cover poets are gone: Lalo Delgado, Colorado’s first poet laureate, a gentle man with a thunderous reading voice and Craig Crist-Evans, who left Colorado and died too young. This April, 1982 issue included the guide for the Fifth Denver Film Festival, now in its 33rd year, and an article titled “El Salvador: Another Vietnam?” Ad phone numbers did not include area codes: we only had one. To paraphrase Joan Didion, we keep such artifacts to remember what it was like to be us.

Kathleen said she was going to reread the article. “Oh, my God, I wouldn’t do that,” I gasped. Luckily, I didn’t come across it in my search, only these photos. Let dead dogs lie, I say. I have a chapter to translate and need to go to the store. Phil’s given me an idea for banana bread that will blow Eric right off the block. But the fact that I don’t have my chapter translated? That’s still Kathleen’s fault.

Top row, L to R: Jess Graf, Beth McKee, Ray Gonzalez; middle, Doug Anderson, Kathleen Cain, Little Jess Graf, Pat Dubrava; front, Lalo Delgado, Craig Crist-Evans

Top row, L to R: Jess Graf, Beth McKee, Ray Gonzalez; middle, Doug Anderson, Kathleen Cain, Little Jess Graf, Pat Dubrava; front, Lalo Delgado, Craig Crist-Evans

 

Posted in Humor, Memoir, Neighborhood | 14 Comments

Water Dreams

The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

—Okakura Kakuzo

Water was my element long before I knew I was a water sign. There are photos of me, three, on my grandfather’s fishing boat, laughing at the chop of the waves on a windy day. “You loved it,” Mom said.

My first movie—we rarely went to a movie theatre—happened when we still lived in Queens and Daddy was on a boat in Florida. Mom took my brother and I to see “Singing in the Rain.” I must have been eight, my brother five. As we walked home from the Woodside station it began to rain softly. I was thrilled and danced down the sidewalks, singing, singing in the rain.

Water is often where my brain goes for its metaphors when I’m sleeping. Whatever its preferences awake, the sleeping mind is quite satisfied with clichés and willing to use the same ones over and again.

I’m in a rowboat, slowly filling with water. I have a tiny paper Dixie cup, bail and bail, my arms aching. All the others in the boat lounge indifferently.

To my mind, water is also the symbol of overload.

That dream came during difficult times, in my early thirties. I would not do those years again. There have been some such water dreams since, mainly during my teaching career, but less intense, more like one that surfaced recently.

“Surfaced,” because things do surface from water and also because dreams often don’t care to be recalled, duck back to the unconscious the moment I open my eyes. I wonder what they’re keeping from me.

I’m organizing unfamiliar rooms in a house apparently mine. Piles of junk and trash to sort, floors to clean. I’m working hard, wearing out, when muddy water starts oozing under the door, creeping over the carpet.

In May, I committed to teach a class this school year, the first since I retired five years ago. In July, I was selected to translate a Mexican biography, my first major translation job, something I’ve worked toward for five years. The book was delayed: the first chapters arrived late in August, just as I started my class. In October, Phil had his amputation. Muddy flood, indeed.

Colorado poet David Rothman said recently: “consciousness cures most ills.” If I did not at least partly believe that, I wouldn’t have sought therapy in the difficult years of my thirties, nor would I seek insight from dreams. This sort of dream is an early warning. “Yep,” I nod, waking from that muddy water, “time for a break.” Sometimes it doesn’t take much. On that occasion I took a long, hot bath. Water therapy.

Phil’s gaining walking confidence—gait training, the physical therapist calls it—and has been cleared to drive again. He manages stairs. He takes himself to his own doctor appointments. He walks with a cane. January 23, exactly three months since surgery, we go out to dinner for the first time. Our neighbor Jenn says he’s inspiring. She’s right. The stress dreams fade away.

But, Phil’s growing independence is also disturbing. Partly, I’m not done adjusting to one change before another comes along. Partly, I panic the first time he does anything by himself, as if he were a child. As he drove away the first time, I felt a weave of anxiety and indignation. Catching myself in the midst of those feelings was a rare fish, glittering a wink above the surface before slipping back into the deep. Such flashes of consciousness, however they arrive, aid the constant effort to adjust to our constantly changing world.

Now Phil’s gone to an appointment miles from here, leaving me alone in the house the longest I’ve been alone for three months. I spend the time worrying about how he’ll manage without me. Finally he calls, appointment done. He’s at the store. Do I need anything?

“What? You’re walking around a store by yourself?” I exclaim.

“Not yet,” he replies calmly. “When I go in there I might collapse, but if I do, I’ll call you right after I call 911.”

I press “end call” and to calm myself, drink a glass of water.

 

Posted in Humor, Memoir | 8 Comments

2014 Reading and a Tribute

It was a mixed reading year. I read books published in 2014, like Running through Beijing, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, and Baboon, but I read more old ones, like Lady Oracle, Brown: the Last Discovery of America and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Those three I’ve always meant to get around to. Lady Oracle was a case of saying, “wait—there’s a Margaret Atwood book I haven’t read?” I read Richard Rodriguez because a review of his new book which made me remember I hadn’t read Brown yet and how much I enjoy the way he puts sentences together, how he thinks about things. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: why did I take so long to know this American classic? It’s a early version of the immigrant experience, so much worse in hardships that I feel better about where we are now, but so much the same in discriminating against newcomers, whoever they are, that I am ashamed.

I tried Don Quixote again because of Edith Grossman’s translation and while I got a lot further this time, the worthy and deluded knight from La Mancha is still not my cup of tea. “Unfinished” was a theme of my reading in 2014. I didn’t finish Don Quixote and I didn’t finish Girl with Curious Hair or Che: A Graphic Biography, which may have been in comic form but was dense and often dry nonetheless.

I read scattered selections from the anthologies. That goes for most of the poetry too. As Joe Hutchinson, Poet Laureate of Colorado says, poetry, if it is good, is slow reading. I read a lot in Spanish too, but with a working focus. I’ve now read big chunks of Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Mujer indómita y moderna (1853 – 1928) by Mílada Bazant because I’m translating it.

The Heart of Redness, by Zakes Mda, contemporary South African writer—his title is a correction to Conrad more than a tribute—is a lyrical and lively mix of ancient and new. Baboon was a 2014 Two Lines Press title, a press devoted to translation. What a treat, to be able to read a stunning contemporary Danish writer. Warning: she’s intense. I had trouble sleeping after one of her stories.

Galway Kinnell, an Irish American poet, rooted in New England, also lived in New York City. Born in Rhode Island, he died in October in Vermont, where he lived many years. I heard him read once here in Denver, but my friend Kathleen Cain has the better story about that, for she spoke to him in the tongue of the Irish and he sighed, “Ah, it’s been so long since I’ve heard that: say it again.” I have a signed copy of his Selected Poems that won the National Book Award in 1982.

When I heard he’d died I got all the books of his I have off the shelves and spent some weeks flipping through them, savoring poems at random. He’s one of our finest, Galway Kinnell, a poet who does well what poets do best: strip the blinders from our eyes; remind us what matters.

In a poem called “Old Arrivals,” we see immigrants arriving “in the Harbor/that chops the light to pieces:”

They floated in at night

On black water, cargoes

Which may not go back, waves

Breaking the rocks they break on.

Those who arrive on these shores can’t return because landing here changes them and changes us. What we are as a country has always been the constantly transforming and richly diverse result of such arrivals. But how much better in the poet’s words: waves breaking the rocks they break on.

“The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” is an epic masterpiece New York poem, full of grit and color, Jews and the Holocaust and Puerto Ricans and Chinese on Avenue C, full of moments like this, making us see produce anew:

In the pushcart market, on Sunday,

A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.

Icicle-shaped carrots that through black soil

Wove away lie like flames in the sun.

Like any good poet, Kinnell was always writing about death. For a farewell, from “Why Regret?” the last poem in Strong Is Your Hold, one of his last books:

What did you imagine lies in wait anyway

At the end of a world whose sub-substance

Is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren

And how little flesh is needed to make a song.

 

 

 

2014 Reading List

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas Foster

Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood

New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas, Two Lines Press

McSweeney’s No. 46: Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, which started brilliantly but ended poorly

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. LeGuin

Running through Beijing Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen (thank God for translation and gifts it brings like this vibrant look at an underside of Chinese society)

Don Quixote, Edith Grossman’s translation (not completed, again)

Girl with Curious Hair, stories by David Foster Wallace

Che: A graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón

Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays and Other Short Prose Forms, Edited by Alan Ziegler

Last Call, David Lee, poems mostly set, as the title indicates, in bars

New Border Voices: An Anthology, edited by Brandon Shuler, Robert Johnson, and Erika Garza-Johnson

The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Richard Rodriguez

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

Baboon, Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

The Heart of Redness, Zakes Mda

Strong is Your Hold and other collections, Galway Kinnell

 

 

Posted in Education, Translation, Writing | 3 Comments